The Artist Birthday Series

Kurt Schwitters

He was soon provided studio space and took on students, many of whom would later become significant artists in their own right. He produced over 200 works during his internment, including more portraits than at any other time in his career, many of which he charged for. He contributed at least two portraits to the second art exhibition within the camp in November 1940, and in December he contributed (in English) to the camp newsletter, The Camp.

"Portrait of Rudolf Olden," 1940, by Kurt Schwitters
“Portrait of Rudolf Olden,” 1940, by Kurt Schwitters

At least in the early days of the camp’s existence, there was a shortage of art supplies which meant that the internees had to be resourceful to obtain the materials they needed: they would mix brick dust with sardine oil for paint, dig up clay when out on walks for sculpture, and rip up the lino floors to make cuttings which they then pressed through the clothes mangle to make linocut prints. Schwitters’ Merz extension of this included making sculptures in porridge: “The room stank. A musty, sour, indescribable stink which came from three Dada sculptures which he had created from porridge, no plaster of Paris being available. The porridge had developed mildew and the statues were covered with greenish hair and bluish excrements of an unknown type of bacteria,” wrote Fred Uhlman in his memoir.

Portrait of Uhlman by Kurt Schwitters, 1940
“Portrait of Fred Uhlman,” by Kurt Schwitters, 1940

Schwitters was well-liked in the camp and was a welcome distraction from the internment they were suffering. Fellow internees would later recall fondly his curious habits of sleeping under his bed and barking like a dog, as well as his regular Dadaist readings and performances. However, the epileptic condition which had not surfaced since his childhood began to recur whilst in the camp. His son attributed this to Schwitters’ depression at internment which he kept hidden from others in the camp, “For the outside world he always tried to put up a good show, but in the quietness of the room I shared with him […], his painful disillusion was clearly revealed to me.”

Schwitters, 1941
Schwitters, 1941, before his release from the English internment camp

Schwitters applied as early as October 1940 for release, with the appeal written in English: “As artist, I can not be interned for a long time without danger for my art,” but he was refused even after his fellow internees began to be released. He wrote to his wife Helma in April of 1941, “I am now the last artist here – all the others are free. But all things are equal. If I stay here, then I have plenty to occupy myself. If I am released, then I will enjoy freedom. If I manage to leave for the U.S., then I will be over there. You carry your own joy with you wherever you go.”

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